By Bethany Springer, Juror of Number: Inc’s Art of the South 2019 exhibition.
McLean Fahnestock, Untitled (security work in progress), 2019, Video installation at the Ann Arbor Art Center as part of the 57th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Photo courtesy of the artist.
McLean Fahnestock’s video piece entitled Tidal Passage was recently on display as part of the Number: Inc. Art of the South 2019 exhibition at Memphis College of Art. The following interview was conducted between juror and artist at the generous invitation of Number: Inc.
BS: Thank you McLean for your willingness to share more information about your artistic practice. When Number: Inc. contacted me to gauge interest in an interview, I immediately thought of Tidal Passage as formally and rhythmically it reminded me of David Lynch’s signature velvet red curtains from the 1990s television series Twin Peaks (and subsequently Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017). Amid bad and selective histories, alternate facts, fake news, and deep fakes, theater and the perception of truth in the 21st century have been on my mind lately.
Your practice relies on the culture of sampling, appropriating existing imagery and objects using sources such as online archives, open source files, and public stock photos, and assembling them into encounters that mimic events in the natural and built environment. At the same time, your pieces seem to resist categorization in their otherworldly compositions. Theater and the mediated experience of spatial surroundings seem pivotal to your practice (somewhat akin to Olafur Eliasson’s immersive installations yet less participatory). How important is real experience versus mediated experience of place in your work? As you see it, what is the role of the viewer in your work?
MF: The mediated experience of place in my work is the primary entrance. It is how most viewers see these landscapes in their own lives, not through a direct experience but as an ideal (Platonic Ideal). Our notion of paradise is constructed from our current surroundings – as an opposition to it in many cases, our religious upbringings, and our aspirational selves.
The viewer’s role in the work is as the population of these spaces. Not in the pure experiential way that Eliasson’s work brings people physically in to his work but as an imagined populace. They can picture themselves there. It is as if they are viewing an advertisement for a destination.
McLean Fahnestock, Images from the Side of Sense Haunt Him In His Vision, 2018, High definition video projection on 28 foot main sail suspended upside down from gallery ceiling. The work is silent. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Could you describe your process not only in capturing/selecting data but also in the post-production phase? For instance, how do you determine the sequence of clips, duration, and rhythm of your video pieces? Most of the videos appear as linear sequences that reverse themselves halfway through then loop.
At first I was purely an appropriationist and found great joy in the hunt. As my projects have taken new directions, I have found that mixing the two – found material and material that I have captured in the field – has given me greater control and depth of content. I still get to hunt, scout locations and drag equipment in to strange places.
Sometimes I sketch things out and preplan extensively. I work in series or groupings and so works evolve together. Other works come from digital collages that I create as a way of determining combinations of imagery. I start with these sketches and plans as I fill in a video sequence and then I shift things around and version it out until it is right. If there is a sound component, that determines the pacing and rhythm of the edits. Appropriated footage means that I may not get the duration that I want or things might not line up right or they may be different resolutions. These technical issues get worked out in the editing and can really shape the final piece. This another reason why I started adding my own footage, I have more control over some of the technical aspects of the video.
The duration and rhythm of my video works is determined by the project and the experience I want the viewer to have. Sometimes, I use a musical score to time the work that doesn’t make it to the final piece but the feeling it elicits in the editing remains.
The reversing and looping is a call to the repetition of the natural cycles, the pulling and pushing of the tides, expressions of time, and the human experience of time; it seems to be moving forward but really folds back upon itself and starts again or just bites its own tail – the Ouroboros. I enjoy how this simple play can highlight something uncanny.
I have used these methods for many years. Back when I started making video I used loops to build tension between people. It was what drew me to video as a medium – the tension that is. I was seeking that from my sculptures and I wasn’t getting it.
While living in CA, you worked as a studio assistant to Bill Viola, a pioneer of video art recognized for his slow motion sequences presented over extended durations of time. Has his process (pre-, post-, or production in general) influenced your practice and how you address time?
While I was working for him, I was in his office as a curatorial assistant. It was different from being in production because, while I did not have a hand in the shooting of the works, I knew them inside and out because I was a liaison with the museums and galleries who showed them. At the time (6 years ago now!), I was careful not to allow his work in to mine. I put up a block, checks on my own work. It is hard not to be influenced by what you look at 8 hours a day. How can the trees not enter your visual language when you live in the forest? Now I am more comfortable with how he influenced my work especially with the way we both examine the experience of time and the role of water in our works. For Bill, water is a cleansing force and a gateway between life and death, the portal through which we all must pass as we enter and exit each life. For me, water is desire and separation. Humans built civilizations along the water because of the need for the resource and to separate themselves from others, protection.
In Tacita Dean’s Green Ray from 2001, she describes this illusive phenomenon experienced on the west coast of Madagascar and captured in the fleeting movement of her 16mm film, a moment she says that was not recorded on a video camera “having proved itself too illusive for the pixilation of the digital world.” Clearly, there have been incredible technological advances in audio/video capture since the making of Green Ray; however, when viewing your videos, archival ink jet prints, and projected digital collages, I cannot help but to think about the percentage of information that is lost not only in the process of representing nature (capturing video, sampling someone else’s experience of place) but in the process of post-production and resulting resolution in display. Using an example, how do you determine when to omit versus supplement information?
In a new series I am working on, I am including animations of security envelope patterns in to landscapes. These gyrating patterns fill the air where cloud banks, mist, and fog have obscured the landscape. I determine where to omit information based upon natural formations that I want to highlight to the point of metaphor but also where I want the viewer to feel the poetics of loss or the frustration of withholding. I also want the lack of information to remove something vital from the place, it’s functionality in the way of navigability or its identifying makers that remove its specificity.
So, in these new works, I am supplementing the areas of omission with pattern that was designed to subtly obscure text from the inside of envelopes. I chose this instead of straight redaction because I wanted to make the connection to security. The supplement is my door to new connections and avenues.
McLean Fahnestock, Tidal Passage, 2019, Video. Photo courtesy of the artist.
In your interview with Amelia Briggs in 2018, you mention your process of masquerading & ghosting – materials and images acting as other things like the wave imagery that takes on the form of sinking ships in your Reclamation archival inkjet print series. In a related installation entitled Images from the Side of Sense Haunt Him in His Vision, a 30’ used sail is suspended upside down in a gallery space. Projected onto the sail from opposite sides is a disorienting array of video footage representing sea- and skyscapes.
When images and objects take on characteristics of or imitate other subjects, do you consider this act of role-playing as actual events reimagined or fictional events imagined? Does your practice encompass assigning new or fictional histories to existing objects like the sail?
In my mind, it is the same. The insertion of images into other images to create a new narrative – a fictional imagined history – through combination is the same process I use when giving a sound to an object for example. The imitation is a way of generating new connections so that when that imagery is seen again, it carries both articles, adding a fiction to a truth.
The objects that I am interested in utilizing in my work are those associated with specific places, natural markers of place, or items used for navigation and exploration. I chose the sail for this video because it is about the fears of a dreamer – hitting the rocks, storms, capsizing. Sense tells you not to take the risk. The sail is the vehicle for the dream. When utilizing an object in a work, I will introduce media in or on the object to activate it. Another example of this in my work is the installation Auditognosis. Auditognosis is comprised of hollow cast plastic shells that each hold a unique sound (thanks to a chip, sensor, and speaker). The sounds are all ambient environmental noise that are indicative of a place that is not the ocean. They present knowledge of a place through sound in the package of the sea.
In Images from the Side of Sense I am presenting a fictional imagined future. In Auditiognosis, I am presenting fictional imagined history (to borrow your terminology) and equating the sound of the ocean to a distant highway.
In your black and white video Tidal Passage, a rising tide is mirrored and rotated 90° clockwise and counter-clockwise to create the illusion of an increasing slim passageway as tides rise as if curtains closing. Individual empowerment is evident in these methods of digital manipulation, yet the sense of limitation is visually palpable. This strategy seems to be employed across the spectrum of your media practice whether in the physical manipulation of objects, digital imagery, or projected imagery on sculptural surfaces. How do you see these concepts relating in the context of the 21st century?
I thought about this question for quite a while. I place limitations on myself during composition and creation and these are apparent in the work. They exist to further the seeking of knowledge and communication of desire. I see these are being specifically 21st century concerns because of the availability of fast-food cures to these wants. I can order out my desires and I can wiki my knowledge. But it is empty. I am attempting to contrast this directly with my character, the explorer. Limitations are the obstacles to their goal. The sense of individual empowerment comes from the decision to work through the limitations to their ends.
Your practice often employs two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and time-based methodologies to revisit the romantic notion of the isolated explorer seeking knowledge in undiscovered or remote territories. In the sculptural installation, Drum Solo: Hyperbole for the Undiscovered Country, an assortment of televisions is stacked as a monumental barricade in space. On each screen plays a different video clip of a waterfall feeding the next clip, which collectively creates a faux environment filled with continuous cascading waterfalls. Jarring audio clips of drum solos replace the serene sound associated with the subject matter itself. Obstructions and bucolic portals appear simultaneously and frequently in your work. How do these design decisions relate to our perception of experience, knowledge, and perception of truth?
A related thought…Does the idea of innate knowledge enter your practice? (This may be off chart, but methodological solipsism and its relationship to innate knowledge and skepticism seem related.)
I think this reflects back to desire and knowledge. Exploration as an ideal expression is a search for the new. There is the perception of a mediated experience as an acceptable equivalency for the real. Constructing nature into something that is impossible and unnatural should flag it as being false but it can also become something more desirable. If we do not experience it ourselves, but through images presented as evidence, is it true? Tagging it further by adding the drums as a signifier of wrongness and violence should be a clue to the truthiness of this space. It may also be perceived as more exciting, a hyper-presentation of a waterfall. The sonic and color obstructions and the bucolic image source (the limitation and the desire) set up this conflict.
I am definitely thinking about questions of empiricism vs idealism – methodological solipsism coming in strong on that idealism side. Is what we know innately about the world, about ourselves, better or lesser than what we gain through experience? I don’t think that the work gets us to this question but it is something I think about. Skepticism is part of that inquiry work on my own part.
McLean Fahnestock, Drum Solo: Hyperbole for the Undiscovered Country, 2018, 10 of 15 available channels of unique video with stereo sound. The work is reconfigurable for different spaces and screens. Photo courtesy of the artist.
As mentioned earlier, technological advances in audio and video capture continue to progress at a rapid pace. Conservation of the medium and transference of data to newer formats is a serious concern for many video and electronic media artists who wish their work to survive for future generations. Does conservation and preservation of the medium relate to your overall approach to subject matter?
While working for Bill Viola, I learned a lot about conservation and archival practices for media works. I do pay attention to how my work is stored and am pretty careful now about redundancy (it only takes one bad hard drive). I store my footage, project files, and finals in the highest resolution, lossless formats I can so that I can easily transcode them to new formats when I need to.
When working with the projects that feature appropriated footage and that need that look and feel of material that has been captured by many lenses I know that I am not getting the conservation quality, and that is kinda the point. Hunting down that imagery is also about experiencing what someone else could experience and capture in the moment. That moment can become generative of a new moment. My process is generally transformative so I am not conserving their original material in my work but it is in my files. So many files.
Shifting back to David Lynch and thinking about his surreal use of non-linear time, do you consider your works more timely (reflective of and specific to the present moment) or timeless (enduring moments unrestricted in time eliciting past and future)?
Using these distinctions, I would consider the works timeless. Although writing that seems to give them a gravitas that I have not considered previously. In the more recent works, there is not a connection to a specific time period or if it is, it is undefined. Something that could be past or future past. Referring again to that elusive paradise, I think that paradise has that same timeless quality. Paradise for some is itself situated in the past and for others in the future. Those time markers can be present in the same work.
Bethany Springer is an Associate Professor of Sculpture at the University of Arkansas. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, Individual Fellowships from the Arkansas and Iowa Arts Councils, and a Community Research Award from the UA Community and Family Institute. She has been in residence at Full Tilt and Terra Nova in Newfoundland, The Arctic Circle, Fine Arts Work Center, Bemis Center, and the Tides Institute. Exhibition venues include 21C Museum Hotel, Maryland Art Place, Boston Center for the Arts, Full Tilt in Newfoundland, and the Delaware Contemporary. www.bethanyspringer.com